Dolphins & Shipwrecks with Port River Cruises

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Port Adelaide is the hub of South Australia’s maritime industry. It was here that passengers and goods arrived in the new colony by ship, many of them in the inner harbour area, otherwise known as the Port River. Learn about the river today, see the ship’s graveyard and hopefully spot some of the local dolphins with Port River Cruises.

I recently had the opportunity to jump on board and experience this fun way to learn about the Port Adelaide waterways – even if the weather didn’t play nice for me. Read on to learn more.

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About the Port River Cruises

For many years the Port River has been known for its Port Adelaide Dolphin Cruise. Unfortunately that cruise is no more, but there is now a new, and completely different, Port River cruise.

The new cruise is run by Port River Cruises, the same people who also run the acclaimed Kangaroo Island Ocean Safari, so they have plenty of experience in the tourism and boat cruise industries.

The new Port River cruise is the “Dolphin and Shipwreck Cruise“. It takes around 90 minutes and travels along the Port River and into the waters around Garden Island where the ship’s graveyard is found.

The whole Port River area is part of the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary, so dolphins can be spotted at any time during the cruise. It also lies adjacent to the International Bird Sanctuary, so birdlife is abundant in the area too.

Port River Cruises have two boats that they use for the Dolphins & Ships Graveyard cruise. The smaller one – and the one I went on – has just sixteen seats, which makes for a great intimate cruise.

A second 32-seat boat has recently started doing the cruises as demand has increased. This boat has a rooftop viewing area, perfect for soaking up the sun on warm days.

The boat is comfortable and stable, with windows that can either open wide for great photos or close tight against the weather. There is also access out onto the bow of the boat for more great photo opportunities.

Food can only be brought onboard with prior approval, but beer, wine and soft drinks are available to purchase.

Look out for special events run by Port River Cruises. Recently there have been Floating Melodies tours with live music acts onboard.

You can also occasionally do the fabulous Port River Cultural Tours where passengers learn about the local Kaurna culture and the special connections with the area.

Included are a smoking ceremony and a Welcome to Country. A didgeridoo played on board and bush tucker was served. It is hoped that this cruise will become a regular event. From time to time, other special cruises will appear too.

The shipwreck & dolphin cruises leave from Queens Wharf right in the middle of Port Adelaide. The cruises are offered at 10 am, 12 pm and 2 pm every day.

There is a small ticketing office right near the Port River Lighthouse, that will be opened a little before the first cruise of the day and then between cruises, but I recommend booking in advance so that you are not disappointed.

My Dolphins & Shipwrecks Cruise

Once we were onboard, the captain took us through a quick safety talk, and then we were off! The first section of the cruise is along the Port River.

You will hear tales of the rich maritime history of the Port as you cruise under the new dual road and rail bridges.

This area is very industrial, and while not the most beautiful to look at, it is interesting to see the businesses and shipping from this point of view.

This is where South Australia receives all its fuel and other resources, and where the outgoing ships are loaded with grains, minerals and other bulk exports.

The boat turns right into the channel separating Torrens Island from the mainland. Torrens Island is mostly dominated by two power stations, one of which is no longer operational.

It is also home to the old Torrens Island Quarantine Station which is interesting to tour if you get the opportunity.

Soon the shipwrecks are in front of us. The Garden Island Ship’s Graveyard was operational from 1909 until 1945 when 25 ships were driven into the sand and left here to rot.

If you are also lucky enough to be doing the cruise at low tide, you will clearly see a dozen or so of the wrecks.

The last of the ships to be left here in 1945 was the Santiago, which is also the oldest of all the ships (built in 1856) and still the best preserved. It is considered a significant historic shipwreck, and measures are being taken to preserve it.

(Just weeks after my cruise, the Santiago split in half properly and partially collapsed, showing just how much these wrecks are disintegrating.)

For more information on the ships in the graveyard, see this website.

The section of water between the shipwrecks and the Torrens Island Bridge is the only section of water without a speed limit. It is therefore home to the Adelaide Speedboat Club.

It is also an opportunity for the Port River Cruise boat to go a little faster on the return journey and for myself and my fellow passengers to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Getting closer back towards Port Adelaide there is one final stop at the Dock 2 area to take in the City of Adelaide restoration project. This ship is the oldest remaining clipper ship in the world.

She was built in the UK in 1864. Many people in South Australia can trace their family roots back to this ship as it transported many immigrants from the UK to Australia over the years.

After a long and varied life, the City of Adelaide was rescued from Ireland in 2014, and is slowly being restored. There are tours available through the ship with a small museum.

It is expected to become the hub of a ship precinct linked to the nearby Maritime Museum, with other historic ships being brought to join it.

While we were unlucky not to see the dolphins on our cruise, I do know that they are here as I have seen them dozens of times over the years, usually when least expected.

The Port River dolphins are possibly the only wild dolphin pod to live within a metropolitan area, but sadly their numbers have declined over the last few years.

The cruise ends back where it started on the wharf in Port Adelaide where you can now explore more of this interesting and historic suburb.

What to Do After Your Port River Dolphin Cruise

After your Shipwrecks & Dolphin cruise Port Adelaide has plenty to keep you entertained for the rest of the day.

Grab a meal at one of the nearby cafes or restaurants – perhaps Pancakes at the Port or some great fish’n’chips just around the corner from Salty Dog Seafood and Grill.

Then call into one of the museums – Maritime, Railway or Aviation – explore the street art, and end the day with a beer at Pirate Life.

Read about all the things to do in Port Adelaide here.

It's not just me who loves this Port Adelaide cruise - Port River Cruises won Best New Tourism Business at the 2023 SA Tourism Awards

Ready to book your own Dolphins & Shipwrecks Cruise?

Read more about Port Adelaide in these blog posts
Port Adelaide Street Art
Where to Stay in Port Adelaide
Kayaking with Dolphins in Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary

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About the author

Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred, living here for her whole life. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.